Types of Prototypes

CHOi Design utilizes prototypes at each stage of the design process. As defined by wikipedia, A prototype is an early sample, model, or release of a product built to test a concept or process or to act as a thing to be replicated or learned from. Another way to look at characterizing a prototype is to think of it as a portrayal of a design idea.

In the article, What do Prototypes Prototype?, Stephanie Houde and Charles Hill expand on their observations that the term “prototype” has different meanings to different disciplines. Thus a prototype can exist in many different forms, some looking market ready while others simple foam or clay forms. No matter what the appearances may suggest, each of these prototypes has an important purpose and may prove to be pivotal in a product’s success.

To stay consistent with the terminology, as defined by Houde and Hill, I will use artifact in reference to the object or system being designed. I will also apply the 3 aspects they defined as the dimensions of a prototype: role (the function served for a user), look and feel (sensory experience), and Implementation (functional components). Every prototype helps a designer interpret and iterate on at least one of these dimensions.

As we have established that there are numerous different types of prototypes for the many industries and designers, I want to highlight some of the prototype forms that Industrial Designers most often put to use.

While not a 3D model, Storyboards are great prototypes for exploring the “Role” dimension. Often illustrating a user’s interaction with the artifact, a storyboard is a great tool for focusing attention on the identify of the artifact within an environment and the target role it serves the user. The appearance or details of the artifact within these storyboards is not important, all that is necessary is for the general form to exist within the situation you are illustrating.

Visual Prototype
This type of prototype serves to explore the “look and feel” dimension. Having the appearance of the artifact, designers can use these models to examine shape and size. While it will have the physical representation of the artifact, these models are rarely functional. Sometimes referred to as appearance models or mock-ups, it can be beneficial to both designers and their clients to see a design concept in it’s physical form.

Proof-of-Concept prototypes explore the “Implementation” dimension. This form of model will demonstrate how the product works, providing functional validation. This will not be a perfect and pretty model; components will often be chosen based on price and accessibility, utilizing simple fabrication to communicate the artifacts potential.

Presentation Prototype
A presentation prototype explores the look and feel as well as the implementation dimension. This model is one of the closest representations of the final artifact; it will often be made from production grade or closely comparable materials and include the artifact’s functionality, albeit a mix of bespoke and ‘off-the-shelf’ components. Presentation prototypes are often used for promotional purposes, to show product viability prior to manufacturing, and to help designers license their artifacts to manufactures.

For further information on the types of prototypes, I recommend reading the article I referenced at the beginning of this post: What do Prototypes Prototype?, by Stephanie House and Charles Hill.

Lindsay Schultz
Researcher atCHOi Design Inc.